New York City Redux

Here I am again at Penn Station, on my way back from what has become an annual excursion to the Big Apple. The trip was shorter this time, though somehow it felt longer. I was even bored at points (!), or maybe just immobilized by being unsure of how best to use my time in such an overwhelming place. I feel a bit worn out, no doubt because I’ve walked more in three days than I normally do all month. This is probably why I saw so few portly New Yorkers. And they must blow through shoes every few months. I’d say that I’ve surely lost a few pounds, but then I remember how much I’ve eaten. New York is second only to cruise ships in constant food availability.

My trip consisted mainly of opera performances, two days at the museum, and several dinners with an old friend. My hotel was – interesting. I was trying to keep things affordable, but I might choose to pay up the wazoo next time. You don’t get what you don’t pay for. Hot water would be one of those things (but, presumably, I paid for that).

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The individual rooms were decorated (I assume for free) by different artists. Mine looked like someone ingested pea soup and then projectile-vomited it all over the room. Everything was slathered in a thick coat of slimey green. A plaque on the wall informed me that the color was called “arsenic.” How fitting. The pukey decor was augmented by images of someone’s trip to uninteresting parts of Asia, complete with paper lanterns and Christmas lights strung  from the ceiling. I felt like I was either in a teenager’s bedroom, or a Martha Stewart nightmare. The room was very hot and noisy, with no way to control either affront to my senses. Sleeping a full night was impossible. It was akin to a night on a park bench in Times Square, except there wasn’t the saving grace of a cool breeze. Of course I didn’t come to New York to sit in my hotel room, but it will be nice to get home to my own digs. Comfy. Quiet. No snot-green anywhere.

When I did leave my room, it was to much more grand surroundings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is amazing. It would take a week just to give everything even a cursory look. I gave it two afternoons. I was amazed at times by the great detail artists were able to give their items (plates, pottery, figurines, furnishings) long before modern techniques to paint or mold them existed, and with the great condition items were in that were hundreds of years old. I frequently asked myself “how did they do that way back then without modern conveniences?” Astounding how talented and creative people can be when they aren’t filling their every moment with mindless electronic distractions.

As for the operas, always a treat. The Met orchestra is top notch, and while there aren’t superstar singers the likes of Pavarotti or Callas these days, the singing is far better than I’d hear most other places availabile to me aside from my own (massive) mp3 collection.

And speaking of Callas (whose voice I adore), my friend (the one I supped with) gave me a biography of her as a gift. I was very touched. And bemused. The thing is huge and weighs about five pounds (it’s hardcover and full of delicious pics), and here I am trying to travel light, knowing I have luggage to lug through the streets, stairwells, and subway tunnels of New York. Good thing I didn’t fly here, as I’d have to buy a seat for the book on the return trip.

Spring is blooming in the city, and the landscape is full of mass plantings of tulips and hydrangeas, as well as cheery clumps of  flowers ringing sidewalk trees in the only garden space most residents  have. Space is at a premium, and everyone makes the best of it. I had wanted to spend some time in the fantastic green (yes, green!) vistas of Central Park, but it didn’t happen this time. At least I wasn’t rained on the whole trip; it was just dreary and gloomy, kind of like my room.

Again, like last year, I didn’t see a single person who I felt threatened by during all my subway rides and street walks. I’m not sure what to make of this. I kept near crowds of regular shmoes like myself, tried to blend in and look confident and blase (“hey, I do this all the time!”), and never felt afraid. I’d be more concerned walking around certain dank areas back home. Here, there are people everywhere at all hours in a city that never sleeps, most of them just going about their business. Kids, moms, tourists, working people, largely unfazed with their surroundings or the hour, interacting more with their smartphones than the people all around them. Just like me (I’m typing this in the waiting area at Penn Station). See how nicely I blend?

I got out of my comparatively rural surroundings for a few days into one much more cosmopolitan. I heard foreign tongues everywhere. I sat next to a young man at the opera who appeared to be, like me, alone, and during the intermission I asked how he was enjoying it. He was European, and had seen the opera (Aida) many times in Vienna and other European cultural centers. I noted that during the performance he didn’t have his seat translator on, so he was likely multi-lingual, unlike my boorish American and unsophisticated self. It was a bit humbling.

So while it was nice to get away, it will also be nice to get back to my version of Kansas where I (unfortunately) fit in better. This city knows I don’t really belong here, as much as I may aspire to. But I’ll keep trying it on for size nonetheless, and hope it doesn’t take much notice.

The 200-Year-Old Barber

I have recordings of over five-hundred operas. It would take me almost two months of non-stop listening to hear them all. Alas, I only have an hour of listening in the car each day (perhaps I should get a job further away), and a small amount before bedtime each night, both of which I take full advantage. There are favorites, of course (based on what I’ve heard so far), as well as desert island must-haves (even though, were I stranded on a desert island, I would finally have the glorious opportunity to listen to them all and, in an age when all of my operas can fit in the palm of my hand, I wouldn’t really have to choose). Carmen. Aida. The Magic Flute. Turandot. Among the priceless gems is Rossini’s brilliant work The Barber of Seville, which he composed in just three weeks when he was twenty-four years old. It was his seventeenth opera, some of them written when he was a child.

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Rossini at 24

When I was a child, I spent summers at my grandmother’s house and watched a lot of TV. Bugs Bunny cartoons were a staple of my early-seventies television diet, and those cartoons used a surprising amount of classical music. I mostly remember hearing Mendelssohn and Rossini, even though I didn’t know their names, and I suspect my love of classical music and opera began there. One memorable episode featured Bugs and Elmer Fudd in The Rabbit of Seville, with heavy use of the famous overture from Rossini’s similarly-titled opera. Another episode, What’s Opera, Doc?, featured the equally famous “Largo al factotum” from the same opera (this one you’ve heard: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiiigaro!”). It would be thirty years before I heard the complete two-hour opera, because, like most average Joes, I thought opera too inaccessible and esoteric for an average Joe. It would be ten more years before I gave myself permission to go see it live, and, just this year until I recognized the genius of the first act’s closing sextet, “Ma signor!”

Rossini had a gift for starting off a composition quietly, then slowly and steadily ratcheting it up to a frenetic and thrilling crescendo. He used this technique in his two most famous overtures, those to Barber of Seville and William Tell, and he really masters it in “Ma Signor.” In this glorious piece, six people, very confused from the recent happenings on stage, are singing different parts all at once, first quietly and slowly, then with increasing urgency and volume until the piece explodes in the musical equivalent of a fireworks finale. When I listen to it with headphones, which is necessary in order to hear all that’s going on in the background, I never cease to marvel at its technical brilliance and utter perfection. It has a satisfying mathematical precision that makes order out of chaos, which perhaps is why I like it so much.

I’m glad to be living in a time when I can easily listen to this and other works (or “opera,” which is the Latin word for “works”) any time I choose, a luxury that no one had in Rossini’s day. In fact, he took advantage of this fact by recycling his own overtures, using the same one in several different operas. Who would remember? Regardless, the man was a genius, right up there with Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He wrote 39 operas in all, and retired early to live out the latter part of his life as a gourmand and bon-vivant (the restaurant dish tournedos Rossini is named after him). This year marks the 200th anniversary of The Barber of Seville, still considered one of the best comic operas ever written.

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At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Life in the big city – Day Two

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Today was a museum day, partly because it rained, and partly because I’m very tired of walking the streets already (I overdid it yesterday). The problem with this plan was that I ended up doing a ton of walking anyway, and in the rain. Twice now I have tried to cut through Central Park to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is about the only direct way to get there from my hotel. It looks simple enough on a map. But both times I ended up going in a loop (the park is huge and meandering) rather than a straight line and coming out pretty much where I started after a good 40 minute walk, and mind you every step of that walk was somewhat painful. I finally found the museum after a walk that was twice as long as it should have been, so I was a little cranky and wet and tired by the time I got there.

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The museum is, of course, magnificent. It’s cavernous. It’s overwhelming. There are so many rooms that I suspect I only saw about half of them in the five hours I was there, and many of those I raced through because I was mindful of the time. The museum did remind me a bit of being in Macy’s in that once I was inside, I couldn’t figure out how to get out. Someone could have offered me $500 to find them an exit and I don’t think I could have done it.

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The other thing I couldn’t find was a scrap of anything to eat or a restroom (actually, this has been a problem in general the whole time I’ve been here). In this sense the museum is not very patron-friendly. But that was all made up for by the stunning artworks the museum possesses, over a hundred and twenty of which I took pictures of (see my Facebook page for today). Yeah, I was that guy. But I had tons of company, and at least I wasn’t stupid enough to use flash. I might be from Eastern Connecticut, but I know a few things about being in museums (I probably used flash last time and got yelled at).

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By the time my museum gawking was winding down I was extremely tired and extremely hungry. I did manage to find something to eat about three-quarters of the way through my visit. It was a $7 peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was the worst one I have ever eaten. I don’t know how you can ruin a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but they managed, and my $3.50 cup of coffee was so hot as to be undrinkable and un-holdable. Plus there was nowhere to sit. So imagine my delight when I noticed a comment card on one of the tables. I asked them if they hated their customers. When I left the museum I found a hot dog vendor on the street, and to my groaning stomach it was filet mignon. It hit the spot, and was enough to fuel my walk back to the hotel – which I didn’t screw up this time.

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I had a whole hour to rest and shower before heading out to my second opera of the week. Luckily, I can leave my hotel and be at Lincoln Center in less than ten minutes. The opera house is gorgeous and elegant. Everything is decked out in red velvet, including the walls and the railings, accented by rosewood and stunning chandeliers that rise out of the way when the show begins. I think the house seats somewhere around 3,000 people, making it the largest opera house in the world.

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This opera was a bit special in that it’s one of my favorites, and in that it was being conducted by James Levine, the aging, beloved, and soon-to-be retired musical director of the opera house for the past four decades. It was a treat to see him there. He is now in a wheelchair and hasn’t conducted many shows lately, but this is also one of his favorites. He received a warm and  thunderous ovation, not once but four times during the evening. They built a special ramp and conductor’s podium for him to accommodate his wheelchair. The audience loves him and so does the orchestra, so they go out of their way to take care of him.

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The opera itself is not one of Mozart’s most popular, but I think the music is fantastic. It’s not a serious opera. There are a lot of lighter moments mixed in with gorgeous and uplifting tunes (one of them, the rousing “All hail the mighty Pasha Selim,” is my cell phone ringtone, below).

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The story concerns two refined British women who find themselves in a Turkish harem after their ship is seized by Pirates. Their beloveds were also taken and separated from them. The rest of the story concerns the effort of the men to rescue the women, even though the women have been given to the Turks as concubines. The opera was featured prominently in the movie Amadeus, which is where I first encountered it. The music struck me even back then when I wasn’t into opera at all. It was a magnificent show. The costumes were gorgeous.

Tomorrow I visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. While I’ve seen the statue before, Ellis Island will be a new experience, and I suspect a moving one.  I may also try to squeeze in the 9/11 Memorial if there’s time, which of course will be more moving still. I’ll report back tomorrow night after what will probably be an emotional day.